Peking Opera Blues (1986)

Directed by: Tsui Hark
Written by: To Kwok Wai
Producers: Tsui Hark & Claudia Chung
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh, Cherie Cheung, Mark Cheng, Kenneth Tsang, Ku Feng & Wu Ma

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1987:
Best Actress (Sally Yeh)
Best Supporting Actor (Paul Chun)
Best Action Choreography (Ching Siu-Tung)
Best Art Direction (Vincent Wai, Ho Kim-Sing & Leung Chi-Hing)
Best Cinematography (Poon Hing-Sang)
Best Film Editing (David Wu)

There are movies that you beforehand know are masterpieces and turn out to be just that. Then there are movies like Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues which have received praise in EVERY review I've read. In the end some praised movies end in disappointment and for me this was one.

The story takes place in 1913 where three women with totally different backgrounds must stop the fall of democracy at hands of conspiring warlords. Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin from Dream Lovers) is the one leading the mission to obtain a vital document and she has to go against her father, General Tsao (played by Kenneth Tsang from Anna and The King), to defend the republic. Pat Neil (Sally Yeh from The Killer) is an aspiring opera actress that get dragged into the hunt and Sheung Hung's (Cherie Cheung from Wild Search) only goal is to get back the jewelry box she once stole...

It really feels like I'm in minority regarding my thoughts of Peking Opera Blues but before we go into why le me just say that I didn't hate this movie, it's just wasn't the masterpiece I expected it to be. First let's talk a little bit about our director Tsui Hark. His place in Hong Kong cinema history is long since cemented after influential directorial efforts such as Zu: Warrirors From The Magic Mountain and Once Upon A Time In China. He has also produced even more influential works like A Better Tomorrow and The Killer and recently fired on all visual cylinders in Legend Of Zu (a movie I quite enjoyed). So with all those works behind him, no one can claim Tsui Hark is not good at what he does. Peking Opera Blues does not lack the elements for a terrific movie. It's beautifully photographed, costume- and set design are well above average for a period piece and Ching Siu-Tung's action choreography is creative and exciting. So what's wrong here then?

In Hong Kong movies we can live, at times, with a less than coherent plot and while this movie actually has a good plot, it's never made interesting in combination with other aspects. I think that To Kwok Wai consciously choose to let the plot and character take their time to get together, something I didn't find annoying at all. The story was already moving forward at a good pace and the team behind and in front of the camera carried the movie nicely. When we eventually get the plot and characters sorted out the movie never truly elevate itself to greatness. The whole time I was waiting for the thing to blow me away but that feeling never came. Everything just halts and remains ok despite the fact that there is always something happening in Tsui Hark's frame. It's either that the elements are perfect in the script and never fully done justice to by the director or the weaknesses were there to begin with. It's hard to tell but I could be a combination of both.

To Kwok Wai's screenplay jumps freely between the different moods without any shame whatsoever and that is also an element that made Hong Kong movies so fun to watch at this point in time. The comedy in Peking Opera Blues is often very funny and well-timed, especially in the opera performance-scenes. The innuendos that occur on stage are handled well by all actors involved and they do look prepared timing wise, therefore creating some genuine laugh out loud moments. The comedic timing of the cast reaches it's high point when Sally Yeh is trying to hide her friends from her father (Wu Ma). The drama that is injected here and there throughout the movie falls rather flat though. Despite that we know the characters pretty well and like our three leading ladies, Tsui doesn't manage to bring out the emotions he's aiming for. John Woo for example always did this masterfully but Tsui Hark gets stuck with one foot in the swamp of clichés. I just didn't care or feel sorry for them, which I should've considering what I as a viewer had experienced with them.

The biggest star of this show has to be the work by action choreographer Ching Siu-Tung (director of A Chinese Ghost Story and the upcoming Naked Weapon). Here his and Tsui Hark's imagination are nicely combined into scenes with gunplay, crazy stunts and first rate excitement. I really enjoyed the inspiring camerawork in these scenes but it makes one miss what great stuff we used to see in Hong Kong movies.Ching Siu-Tung is a reliable man to have on your project and kudos to him for making a dork like Mark Cheng look good with guns in his hands. Definitely the highlight of the movie and these are scenes you could watch over and over again outside of the actual movie. I won't ruin anything for you but the climax is simply awesome and it's one I will watch again before I pass on the dvd.

Peking Opera Blues is literally filled with stars starting with our leading ladies and fan favourites from many movies of this era. As mentioned, in the script all the characters never truly come to life and Tsui has apparent problems directing them to life also. Have to say that neither cast member does a bad job though and leading the pack is one of my favourite actresses from this era, Brigitte Lin. She again shows that she was good at her craft while she was working and the conflicts and the courage within her character is probably one thing To Kwok Wai pulled off the best in the writing stage. Sally Yeh gets weak material to work with since her journey and character arc is never made clear enough but Cherie Cheung shows great comedic range and is a delight to follow throughout the movie. It's not often I have fun watching almost typical Cantonese humour but under Tsui Hark's guidance Cherie puts in a memorable performance. Supporting players include, the almost always bad, Mark Cheng, often bad guy actor Kenneth Tsang and the always wonderful Wu Ma.

Peking Opera Blues is not a bad film but not the masterpiece I thought it was going to be and the elements that have been highly praised in reviews, I thought were done ok. It wasn't easy not to set the bar high with this movie but in the end it turned out to be a fairly exciting action-comedy. You hear that some movies may grown on you during a second viewing but I wouldn't want to watch this again to see if it's true. Maybe I'll pick up the future Hong Kong Legends dvd to judge Peking Opera Blues once again.

The DVD:

Megastar's dvd presentation is pretty terrible for fans of this movie. The 1.85:1 framing seems correct and the almost hazy cinematography by Poon Hing-Hang gets treated nicely. Even if it's soft in intention I still felt the picture should've been sharper. Print damage is as ever present but was not too bad considering it's an older movie.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is a disaster though. The good thing is that music is nicely presented in the front speakers but throughout the movie new bad foley effects are inserted and they don't fit AT ALL to the on screen action. Some of the dialogue is drowned out by all this also so it wasn't a pleasant listening experience. A Mandarin 5.1 track is also included.

The English subs didn't fare to well either. The grammar present is often pretty horrific and it does spoil the film somewhat. Japanese, Korean, Bahasa Indonesian, Bahasa Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, Spanish, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese subtitles are also selectable. can guess them at this point. Plot synopsis, cast & crew listing (with basic biographies for Tsui Hark, Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh and Cherie Cheung) plus trailers for A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story and The Killer.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson